Public History

Public History is a real-world discipline where history is interpreted for the public.

The practice of public history includes the areas of historic preservation, cultural resource management, archival science, heritage tourism, oral history and museum curatorship.

At Roanoke, you'll have opportunities to work with professors and local historical institutions to conduct research and gain valuable firsthand experience in the field. The Roanoke Valley is rich with history, and has a strong tradition of historic preservation and a number of historical museums.

While public history is a new concentration at Roanoke, many of our history grads have gone on to careers in this field, working at the National Archives and Records Administration, the Smithsonian, and the National Museum of the Marine Corps.

We offer a concentration in public history.

Researching heritage tourism in China

Watch Video Kathleen Ouyang
“My research really opened my eyes to the different career opportunities in the heritage tourism field.” Kathleen Ouyang ’13

While the field of public history has been led by bricks-and-mortar institutions, there's a growing movement to create digital experiences through websites and apps for historical archives, online museums and virtual tours.

Student taking notes at a cemetery

Unmarked African-American graves in Salem cemetery

While a student at Roanoke, RJ Warren '07 found his niche when he was recommended to research East Hill Cemetery in Salem as part of the Summer Scholars program. After the Civil War, a former slave owner gave land to the African-American community to use as a burial ground in 1868. The Citizens League of Salem estimated that roughly 150 people were buried at East Hill. However, as Warren's research progressed, he found 780 names of people buried at East Hill. Warren believes that there are 1,100 to 1,200 people buried at East Hill, but there is no record of them because their gravesites have no headstones or no receipts exist, and people literally are buried on top of one another. 

"The research has a definite purpose to make the cemetery known by honoring the forgotten," says Warren. "After people are aware of it, the City of Salem and its citizens will help with the basic upkeep and inform and teach their children as to why it is there and why it should be remembered."

Following Warren's research, the City of Salem placed a bronze plaque honoring those buried, including the names of individuals previously unidentified at East Hill, on a large stone wall beside the cemetery. 

Living history in the Yucatan

Professor Wallace-Fuentes' class traveled to the Yucatan to help them understand how the rich indigenous past and present can best be presented to tourists.

Sample Course Offerings:

  • HIST 200: United States History Student working with a professor
  • HIST 207: American Material Culture 
  • HIST 365: Issues in 19th Century America

    View all courses 

Professor and students uncover College’s African-American history

Professor and students sifting through dirt

Professor Kelley Deetz and about 50 of her students spent a semester unearthing remnants of history in the dirt on Roanoke's campus and, with each find, uncovered a historical narrative of slavery in Southwest Virginia. They've found broken and whole pieces of china, silverware, animal bones and more underground, just outside the kitchen of the College's circa 1853 Monterey House.

It's not unusual for the campus history of colleges in the South to include slavery. There were at least 20 enslaved African Americans who lived at Monterey House. Monterey previously served as a hotel, fraternity house and private residence before the College bought it in 2002. 

M'Elise Salomon '17, a student in Deetz's "Archaeology of Slavery" class, found animal bones and old nails during a dig. "I just love learning about the history of West African traditions," Salomon says. She learned about plans for the Monterey House dig from Deetz before she decided to come to Roanoke. She says the project was one of the reasons that she enrolled at the College.


Kim Eslinger scuba divingStories from Davey Jones' Locker

Kim Eslinger '98 entered Roanoke College with the intention of becoming a doctor. At the end of her freshman year, after taking the honors class "Turning Points," Eslinger decided she wanted to pursue history. By the end of her junior year, Eslinger announced her decision to study shipwrecks. After graduating from Roanoke, she pursued a career in marine archaeology. Eslinger's fieldwork includes the Queen Anne's Revenge (Blackbeard's flagship), USS Monitor  and SS Commodore projects. Each project employed Eslinger's skills in various manners, with her primary work being conducted in the laboratory. 

"My degree in history from Roanoke College taught me the importance of untold stories, but my minor in Theatre Arts gave me an appreciation for the people themselves," says Eslinger. "Archaeology is much like that; it takes the historical record and uses it as a guide. I use the scraps people have lost over their lives and use them to fill out the picture of who they really were."